The sword is one of oldest weapons known to man. It evolved from spears, which evolved from clubs. Originally, clubs and spears were used by early man for hunting prey. Eventually these weapons were used in anger against other men and came to be adapted into swords specifically for the purpose of fighting.
The sword has come a long way since the sharpened sticks first used to poke enemies. Probably the earliest recorded swords as we know them can be seen in Egyptian drawings dating from around 1200 BC. Roman soldiers carried 'short swords' which, as the name suggests, had short flat blades with sharp edges. During the medieval period, large ornate swords with longer blades came into fashion; swords such as the Longsword which might be 46-48 inches long. Popular myth has it that only the strongest warriors were able to lift them, but the weight of medieval swords rarely exceeded three or four pounds. Of all the types of sword, these were the ones to be remembered most readily. Many fantasy books are written set in this era, all with the inevitable magical hero and his jewel-encrusted sword, and games like Dungeons and Dragons and Warhammer are still surprisingly popular today.
The event in history that really changed the shape of both fencing and of the sword was the invention of gunpowder. In the 17th and 18th Centuries, armour went out of fashion because it was of little use against muskets. Along with the armour, the need for large swords vanished and light swords called duelling rapiers were carried by the gentry. It is around these swords that modern fencing swords are based. Because the gentry had fairly little need to carry a sword for practical purposes, rapiers were used mainly as fashion accessories. Although occasionally used in self-defence, rapiers were frequently relied upon to settle matters of honour. It is for this reason that fencing today is such a formal sport, in which fencers salute one another before a bout and shake hands afterwards.
Fencing has been a sport in the Olympics since the ancient games were revived in 1896. As a sport, it is still surprisingly popular. Originally only the male gentry were trained as fencers so that they might defend themselves in duels, but now the sport is open to all classes and ages, as well as both genders. After a slow decline in popularity, the sport has recently witnessed a revival, thought to be inspired by such films as Star Wars and The Mask of Zorro.
The Rules of a Fencing Bout
The actual fencing takes place on a strip of ground called the 'piste' which is 14 metres long by 2 metres wide. Fights, or 'bouts', may be up to five minutes in length in competitions, and during that time each fencer must attempt to score five hits on their opponent. Aside from the two competitors, other individuals involved with the bout include the President (now called the referee) and four judges. The referee starts and stops the bout and awards points to whichever fencer he deems has scored a hit on the other. The job of the judges is to watch for any hit scored so that if the referee is unsure about a hit they can tell him whether it was on target or not.
There are three weapons used in fencing, all of course types of sword. They are the foil, the épée and the sabre and each has a variety of different rules in addition to those described above.
The Three Types of Swords
The sword that most beginners are most likely to use is called the foil. Modelled after the classical rapier, it is about 1 metre in length and weighs around .7kg. You may only score with the tip of the blade. Also the only valid target area is the torso; no head, arm, or leg points allowed. This is a good weapon to learn how to control and practice your speed with, but most championships and competitions use the épée.
The épée is a slightly longer version of the foil with a larger guard1. For the épée, hits may be scored all over the body - everywhere is on target. The épée is the only weapon where, if two hits are scored at once, both combatants are allowed a hit. Like the foil, hits may only be scored with the point of the blade.
Sabre bouts are fast and furious, as not only is the whole body on target but hits can be scored with the flat of the blade as well as the point. Sabre fencing is notoriously violent and many fencers come away from their bouts with bruised fingers. Even though the guard on a sabre is huge, the forces involved as both people hack away at each other are so large that it's easy to get your fingers trapped.
Penalties fall into three categories for three types of card: yellow, red and black.
If you are fencing a particularly pushy opponent and step back with one foot off the end of the piste, you may continue fencing. If, however, both feet are off the end of the piste then a halt is called and you are issued with a yellow card. This in itself is not too bad, but if the same thing happens again then your opponent is awarded a hit.
Should you at any point step off the side of the piste, even with one foot, a halt is called and you are issued with a red card. This means that your opponent is instantly awarded a hit, which usually teaches you pretty quickly not to do the same thing again.
Now for the worst possible penalty - the black card. If you act in violence towards your opponent other than with the use of your blade during a bout, use offensive language or violence toward the Referee or Judges, or engage in 'unsafe' conduct with your blade, you may be issued with one of these. What it means is that your opponent wins the bout automatically and you may be escorted off the premises and literally thrown out into the street.
Electronic Judging in Fencing
Almost all competitions nowadays use electrical equipment to find out when a hit has been scored. Conductive jackets are worn and wires are run through the weapons so that when contact is made with one of the jackets it creates a circuit and a buzzer sounds. This basically eliminates the need for judges as it's easy to tell when someone has made contact. Since there are a number of halts during the bout whenever a hit is scored, or when a hit lands off-target, the noise can be very irritating after a while, especially as a fencing match consists of 27 bouts, nine for each weapon.